I am a big fan of Jill Filipovic and I in no way intend to pick on her by singling out her tweets here. I am using them because they succinctly state a position that I am confronted with constantly in response to my political analysis.
I did a lot of analytical blogging in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, but I presented my comprehensive autopsy in a cover story for the June/July/August 2017 issue of the Washington Monthly called How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values. The body I examined most closely in that piece was Pennsylvania since it is my home state and the place I understand the best, but the lessons were broadly applicable. Clinton had lost despite doing about as well in the cities as Obama had and much, much better in the suburbs. This wasn’t supposed to be possible, but her collapse in low-population rural counties had been truly epic.
This represented a realignment. The Philadelphia suburbs had been controlled by the Republican Party since the Civil War. The coal-mining and steel industry areas of southwestern Pennsylvania had remained the most stubborn of Democratic areas throughout the 1980s, even voting with Dukakis when hardly anyone else did. It wasn’t a swap of votes that benefitted the Democrats. In fact, prior to Clinton, Dukakis was the last Democrat to lose Pennsylvania.
I wanted people to understand that there were long-term consequences to this realignment, among which was that it was going to make it almost impossible for the Democrats to control the state legislature. It also meant that the Democratic Party was going to become less of a working families party and more of a party for well-educated and tax averse professionals. I also wanted people to accept that these rural voters were not hopeless causes. Many of them had voted for Obama once, if not twice. Many had voted for Kerry and Gore. They weren’t natural Republicans even if they had always been socially conservative Democrats. And, in any case, the Democrats didn’t need to win in their counties. Obama hadn’t won their counties. What they needed to avoid, however, was a continuation or worsening of the trend toward the GOP. I called this trend, “The Southification of the North.”
In the last couple of years, I have fleshed out these ideas some, focusing on troubling signs of fascism I see in our country, and the importance of not allowing the right to own the hearts and minds of the majority-race working class.
The gubernatorial election in Kentucky on Tuesday provided an almost perfect validation of my ideas. Trump won Kentucky by thirty points, so a lot had to go wrong for an incumbent Republican governor to lose his reelection bid. Three things combined to take Matt Bevin down: turnout surged in urban areas and college towns, the suburbs moved strongly in the Democrats’ direction, and much of coal country voted for Democratic Andy Beshear even as they stuck with other Republicans further down the ballot. If any leg of this stool had been kicked out, the victory would not have been possible.
I have never argued that the Democrats should prioritize the “interests, authenticity or value” of white men who voted for Trump over the actual base of voters of color. First of all, Trump’s appeal in these rural areas is not limited to men. More importantly, I have said that the Democrats need some of these voters and that they absolutely can get them without compromising their liberal values. In response, I’ve been told time and time again that these voters are gone forever, not worth courting, and not needed because the Democrats can win by focusing solely on driving up turnout among their new urban/suburban coalition. I believe Kentucky just proved every part of those rebuttals to be incorrect.
First of all, Kentuckians split their tickets in a big way, showing that they are willing to vote against a Republican they perceive to be doing a lousy job without abandoning the party as a whole. The quality of governance still matters. Secondly, the Democrats either flipped the major suburban counties or severely cut Republican margins there while boosting turnout in their strongholds, and it was not enough by itself to bring victory. Third, Andy Beshear didn’t win by bashing the base or prioritizing the interests of MAGA hat-wearing Trumpists. He courted organized labor, including teachers, and he emphasized health care. Fourth, there are coal counties that Trump won by twenty points that Bevin lost by twenty points, demonstrating that the supposedly deplorable regions of the state still have a massive amount of potential swing.
Kentucky is one of the hardest nuts for the Democrats to crack. Their winning formula there was more demanding that it will be in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that Trump won by a smaller margin. In those states, it might be possible to prevail with only two legs of the stool. But why risk that? Why limit the party’s ambitions? Why not try to win back control of state legislatures that appeared lost just four years ago?
Finally, the risks of fascism I keep warning about are driven in large part by a race-based revolt and rejection of norms and constitutional constraints. The divisions in our country are dangerous, and it is risky for the left to abandon working class people of any kind, but especially the majority race. Leaving them to the influence of right-wing xenophobic nationalists puts every vulnerable population in a perilous position. I don’t believe this is a good or safe way of protecting the interests of the base of people of color. I actually believe the opposite is true. The way to appeal to the white working class without compromising liberal values is to support labor and go after market consolidation, monopolies, and regional inequality, and all of those things can benefit working class people of every race.
So, I am not “embarrassed” by anyone in the Democratic base. I just have different ideas about how to win elections and best serve their interests.